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Anti-smoking Ads Work

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DALLAS, Jun 18, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- News flash: ads work. Ads about tobacco can affect teenage behavior. The tobacco companies have known this all along.

The tobacco companies are suing 44 states. Big Tobacco is furious over the anti-smoking ads that are part of, and paid for, by the multibillion-dollar settlement of the litigation brought by the State Attorneys General against the big tobacco companies.

These lawsuits object to the public health ads, saying they portray the executives of the tobacco companies as scheming and evil. One ad shows executives figuring out how many new smokers they need each year to replace those who die. My favorite ad highlights that cigarettes contain the chemical urea. One of the actors repeatedly calls the headquarters of Lorillard saying he's a dog walker and can supply them with all the dog urine they need. Lorillard put out a press release saying, "We do not put dog urine in our cigarettes," winning one of last year's BIMBO awards for a denial that makes the listener believe the opposite.

The first real gripe is that the ads are working. California's youth smoking rate, at 5.9 percent is now the nation's lowest rate. And, showing that ads aimed at teenagers are indeed seen by adults, the state's adult smoking rate has fallen from 22.9 percent in 1988 to 16.6 percent, making it the second lowest in the country.

One of the tobacco company lawyers said in court that the ads should "aim to share health concerns," in other words, be boring Public Service Announcement type ads. Here's the sad news about those ads: they don't work. To change behavior, you have to get the attention of the target audience and motivate them. Kids don't want to be educated. They want to feel hip. They want to think they're in control. Showing tobacco company executives attempting to bamboozle them and being patronizing is a great way to get teenagers to say, "No way you're doing that to me." And the tobacco companies know that.

They've told us so. Daniel Donahue, general counsel of the R.J. Reynolds Company, says the company objects to the ads that portray "fictionalized settings" and that "portray fiction as fact." And just what do their ads do? Think of all the tobacco ads that show impossibly lovely, fit young men and woman flitting around, relaxing, and smiling. If that isn't "fiction as fact," what is?

And talk about "fictionalized settings," those beaches, meadows and parties where they film the cigarette ads exist only on the advertising sets. Check out an ad for Winston, which has a gorgeous, 20s-ish woman holding down a man on a beach blanket. She's looking at him with obvious intentions, and the cut line says "Hostile takeover."

The tobacco companies have always said they don't target teens, and they point to the fact that they don't advertise on TV or in magazines like Seventeen, which are directly aimed at teens. But open the May 19th Sports Illustrated, with Jason Kidd on the cover, and there's a two-page spread for Salems, and a full-page ad for Dorals on page 22. (The Doral ad is a little strange given last year's controversy over dog urine. It shows a Jack Russell terrier looking at a long row of fire hydrants.)

You'll find ads in women's magazines and other magazines. The tobacco companies advertise in publications that teens read and consider "grown-up." It reinforces the idea that it's adult to smoke.

These lawsuits speak volumes about the real intentions of the tobacco companies. They agreed to the settlement because they thought they could raise prices, which they did, and ignore the public health campaign they expected. The "hostile takeover" beach ad described above contains two large boxes, one saying "No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette," and the other says, "SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking by Pregnant Woman May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth and Low Birth Weight." Those warnings have been mandated for years, and consumers ignore them. The bare-chested man on the blanket smiling at the bra and hip hugger jeans-clad woman may be worrying about something premature, but it's not birth.

Consumer groups and plaintiffs have always complained that the tobacco companies try to intimidate those who oppose smoking and that they use their ability to spend millions on legal stalling tactics. This recent round of lawsuits only validates those claims.

Merrie Spaeth, irector of Media Relations for President Reagan, is president of a Dallas-based consulting firm and a regular commentator on public radio and television.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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